To follow-up our list of the 10 Greatest Female Singers of All-Time last fall, we’ve compiled the male-equivalent. Spanning decades of trailblazing, the men have cried tears into their beers and, generally, been shaken up by heartbreak, jail time and other acts of mayhem. Women might run the world, but without foolish boys shattering hearts, they wouldn’t have muses from which to draw. Men, for their part, have molded country into the rich storytelling tapestry it has undeniably become. “Singers” can mean much more than “technically-proficient”– interpretative abilities must certainly play a key role, so thus, this list spans some of the greatest technical singers to the most rough-hewn storytellers the genre has ever seen.
10 Greatest Male Country Singers Of All-Time:
1. Ronnie Dunn
As one part of the legendary red-dirt duo Brooks & Dunn, Ronnie’s silky vocal can crumble the mountaintops and conjure up waves from the deepest of oceans. His solo work has been just as timeless, spanning 2011’s self-titled LP to last year’s Tattooed Heart. He’s gone on to influence such up-and-comers as Jon Pardi and Michael Ray.
Essentials: “Bleed Red,” “My Maria,” “Cost of Livin’,” “I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes,” “Neon Moon,” “Red Dirt Road,” “Brand New Man,” “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone,” “Cowgirls Don’t Cry” (featuring Reba), “Only in America,” “Believe”
2. Johnny Cash
Following in the footsteps of Hank Williams, he was in many ways the heir apparent. But his rockier guitar style and grittier vocal phrasing took country music into uncharted territory. He is often considered one of the greatest musicians of all time, regardless of genre. And he certainly redefined what it meant to be a mainstream superstar act, dealing in hearty traditionalism with flakes of honky-tonk spirit and galloping blues-bent songwriting.
Essentials: “Hurt,” “Cry, Cry, Cry,” “I Walk the Line,” “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” “Daddy Sang Bass,” “A Boy Named Sue,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” “Man in Black,” “Ring of Fire,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” “Highwayman”
In much the same way as the other greats of the time, Haggard mixed varied America-born styles into one giant melting pot, from blues and country to soul and rock. His songwriting was especially potent, hitting you right across the chest with fervor and, often times, sweltering pain. Rising to prominence in the 1960s, he helped define the Bakersfield Sound coming out of California, and he would go on to write one of the most dense and dynamic songbooks of the entire American music pantheon.
Essentials: “Fightin’ Side of Me,” “Okie from Muskogee,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Mama Tried,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Ramblin’ Fever,” “I Threw Away the Rose,” “The Way I Am”
4. George Jones
Jones’ whiskey-soaked lonesome vocal can tear your heart in two. It’s immovable but often tender, particularly on his signature ballads. He might have led a rather troubled public life, as many of country’s loyal stalwarts, but his music stands as a prime example of how powerful country music can truly be at its core.
Essentials: “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” “Golden Ring” (featuring Tammy Wynette),” “A Girl I Used to Know,” “Not What I Had in Mind,” “Why Baby Why,” “White Lightning,” “Color of the Blues,” “A Picture of Me (Without You),” “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “Choices”
5. Alan Jackson
As one of neo-traditionalism’s pivotal figures, Jackson’s feathery vocal is undeniable. His catalog deals primarily in themes of working class families, their struggles and their triumphs against the corporate machine. He’s never compromised his identity for radio play, even when he’s singing about “Chattahoochee” or poppin’ a top (again).
Essentials: “Remember When,” “Here in the Real World,” “Drive (for Daddy Gene),” “Midnight in Montgomery,” “Livin’ on Love,” “Who’s Cheatin’ Who,” “Sissy’s Song,” “Gone Crazy,” “Little Man,” “
6. Randy Travis
His deep baritone helped usher in the Class of ’89, a movement which righted the ship away from countrypolitan and glossy Music row pop. You could hang your entire livelihood on his voice alone: always trident and true to country’s rich roots but he knew how to progress forward. Not only does he consistently hit all the right notes, but they’re always emotionally-charged. There has never been a singer quite like him.
Essentials: “Three Wooden Crosses,” “Forever and Ever Amen,” “Deeper Than the Holler,” “Is It Still Over?,” “I Told You So,” “King of the Road,” “He Walked on Water,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “Love Looks Good on You”
7. Conway Twitty
Often drifting between R&B slow-grooves and sultry bedroom eyes, he is one of the best balladeers of all time. Production styles were often lush and contained more than a few sexually suggestive lyrics, which is probably one of many reasons he became so popular. There was no denying his caramel smooth voice either–he could send chills down your spine with just a flick of a lyric.
Essentials: “Hello Darlin’,” “Baby’s Gone,” “Fifteen Years Ago,” “I’m Not Through Loving You Yet,” “To See an Angel Cry,” “It’s Only Make Believe,” “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” (featuring Loretta Lynn), “Don’t Take It Away”
8. Hank Williams
Williams was always one to wear his heart–and subsequently his troubles–on his sleeve. Whether he was delivering a smoldering ballad on heartbreak or rockin’ blues with the best of them, you felt the weight of every single word, profoundly and deeply. His life was infamously cut short at only 29 years old, but his legacy stretches decades. He was one of country’s first superstars, and rightfully so.
Essentials: “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Cold Cold Heart,” “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You),” “Moanin’ the Blues,” “Half as Much,” “You Win Again,” “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive”
9. Vince Gill
Not only is he one of the greatest vocalists of all time, but he can do serious damage on a guitar. His voice is truly otherworldly, soaring through power notes and into his falsetto with ease. He first began his career as part of the Pure Prairie League before joining the late-80s neo-traditionalist movement. His music has always been rooted faithfully in the past but he has had enough mainstream appeal to widen the boundaries of the country crowd, leading him to become one of the biggest names of the 1990s. He might very well be an angel walking among us, too.
Essentials: “When I Call Your Name,” “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” “Threaten Me with Heaven,” “I Still Believe in You,” “One More Last Chance,” “My Kind of Woman/My Kind of Man” (featuring Patty Loveless),” “Liza Jane,” “If You Ever Have Forever in Mind,” “Like My Daddy Did”
10. Willie Nelson
Alarmingly resonant, Nelson’s voice was both earthy and crystal clear. Included in the Outlaw Movement, he, along with the likes of Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Haggard (and others), brought a bit more pluck to country music, supported with red dirt sensibilities and rock overtones. His songwriting capability is one of the most compelling in history, living up to the cred of such storytellers as Carole King and Leonard Cohen.
Essentials: “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “On the Road Again,” “Always on My Mind,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “City of New Orleans,” “Midnight Rider,” “The Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning,” “Crazy”